Sonderegger’s ‘Systematic Theology’ (so far) pt. III

Previous installments of this series can be found here and here.

After omnipotence, Sonderegger moves to divine omniscience, and this so far has proven to be the most interesting discussion of the book so far. As we’ve come to expect at this point, she’s not interested in a bare account of God knowing X, Y and Z, but rather an account of divine knowledge set within the context of God’s oneness and presence. It’s the latter that, I think, makes her discussion here so fascinating.

Sonderegger sets the divine knowledge, interestingly, within divine eternity and divine wisdom:

‘Most properly Holy Scripture has personified Divine Knowledge: Dame Wisdom is the Substance and the Spirit and the self-Presence of God as Living Truth. She is at the beginning of all God’s ways and works, because Wisdom is not a creature at all, but rather the good Light that is the Lord’s own Personal Life. In this Mode of Divine Being, Dame Wisdom is the utter Clarity – the shimmering Intelligibility – of Divine Spirit, the b=Blessing is that just is God, the Eternity of Divine Truth.’ (p. 344)

We see here how divine wisdom is seen to just be God – but this doesn’t mean that God eternally knows in the sense that God has an eternal catalog of facts at his disposal. This rather means that God knows his creatures and his creations from the inside, as it were:

‘Divine wisdom as subtle and mobile and beautiful enters into every holy soul, making them friends of God (Ws. 7:22, 29, 27); the omniscient God knows not simply the truths about each creature; rather She knows the creature “from the inside” (Ws. 6:12). ‘ (p. 344)

‘The lord enters into the mind and heart and strength of His creatures as that very one, the unmistakable mark of individuality and concreteness. And not just human individuals! God sustains and enters into and is the truth of this particular whoried shell on the seaside; this very element of wind and fire; this leaf still in spring’s fresh bud; this gaunt traveling bird, dipping its weary beak into fresh water. Just this is what we mean when we say that God is Life, Being, Presence, Goodness.’ (p. 345)

So how does this cash out for divine knowledge, exactly? Sonderegger notes that when we ask about God’s knowledge, ‘we ask about this Realtio, the knowing Presence of God with His creatures’ (p. 349). God’s knowledge, like his other attributes, cashes out to be nothing other than God’s presence with us:

‘…we would see more clearly, I believe, if we thought not about God’s mode of knowing contingent events but rather considered the dear Lord’s humble Presence in all existents – how He communicates their life and strength and rationality, their hope and their end – and in just this way enters into their unique kind and mode as eternal light.’ (p. 350)

This way of thinking, of God’s knowledge as an intimate presence with the creature has the most interesting consequences for Sonderegger’s doctrine of the divine knowledge of evil:

‘We might say that an omniscient God must not only know our inner sin, but must know it in a “first persona;” way; it must be possible, we might say, for God to know – to borrow a famous phrase from Thomas Nagel – what “it is like” to be a human creature, frail and fallen. God’s perfect knowledge, that is, must extend to the act of “seeing through our eyes”, entering so fully into creaturely ways that the Creator knows “from the inside” what our very being is like.’ (p. 359)

This is quite a thing to say. God knows – not just knows of, or knows about, but knows – our sin, and our evil. The immediate question is, of course, how? How can God remain wholly good with a first-person, what-it-is-like knowledge of sin and evil? Keeping in mind that Sonderegger affirms a privative account of evil – evil as what is not – we can see as she deploys her compatibilism here:

‘It must be, then, that even as God can be immeasurably near to creation without destroying or sublimating the creatures, so the Divine Knowledge of evil can be incorporated into God’s very Wisdom without compromising, delimiting, or defiling Divine Goodness.’ (p. 370)

‘God does not know, in His Perfect Wisdom, good from evil. This omniscient comprehension is neither comparative nor dialectical…God, we must say, does not comprehend evil as a partner and shadow of good, nor does all good receive its balance and completion in evil, its dialectical twin. No, evil is known by God, is God’s own Wisdom, in its own negation, its haeccitas, as such. For this reason, God Himself can be perfectly, superabundantly good, not good and evil.’ (p. 373)

What Sonderegger says. then, is that God can see that which is the negation of his life, being and blessing – to recall Nietzche, he gazes into the abyss, and the abyss gazes back – and yet, not only is God not defiled or overcome by it, he overcomes it himself. While counterintuitive at times, Sonderegger is keen on pushing just this idea as the good news, against aspects of Thomistic thought, in which God is the only object of his own understanding – and has his knowledge of the world and its creatures through his understanding of himself:

‘…the Wisdom of God is not closed up in its own Goodness, does not stay only within its own Truth and Light, but may and is able to look into the abyss, to grasp and occupy it, to break its formless dread, and to know it – fully, completely – as the enemy conquered.’ (p. 379)

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